THE LINKS BETWEEN SYSTEMIC RACISM AND PTSD

Posted on 22nd June 2020

Racism is a repetitive based traumatic lived experience that many Black, Indigenous, People of Colour (BIPOC) endure throughout their lives. Racial trauma may result from having been racially discriminated against, witnessing or experiencing racial violence and institutional racism. Commonplaces for racism is within the criminal justice system, employment, education, healthcare, housing, and political institutions. 

 

For a large part of my childhood, I felt uncomfortable having been born into a cultural heritage linked to colonialism and slavery which influenced many experiences I had and the perception of myself. I did not want any of this.

 

As Marcus Garvey said,

 

We did not come here of our own free will. We were brought here, and so the question of birth does not enter into the question of being a negro...I didn't bring myself to the western world. You know the history of my race ’.

 

Therefore, I cannot separate myself from my history, the emotional pain of my history runs independently from my mind.

 

I am a black woman, British born, but my identity is African-Caribbean. In 2011, I decided to enrol on a PhD programme, researching into the psychological lived experiences of black male former gang members before, during and after gang involvement. At the time there was a lot of media coverage about gangs and knife crime involving mainly black male youths, and for some reason I was drawn to this subject matter although at the time I struggled to articulate why. Wanting to understand more, I created the research question:

 

What is deeply embedded far beyond immediate comprehension, yet connected to the psychological lived experience of African-Caribbean former gang members?

 

Early into the research process, selecting research participants I spoke to a potential participant over the phone who mistook me for a white person due to my accent. Suddenly, it became apparent that he had an issue with white researchers who he felt used him for his personal experiences and then patronised him with a £10 JD sports voucher for his time. Not prepared for such a reaction, I was initially silent before stating that I was more than happy to pay him for his time. I remember feeling really uncomfortable, I did not even mention that I was black and not white. 

 

The following week, during supervision with my three white PhD supervisors, one asked how I was getting on with the research process and participants. I then mentioned how one potential participant felt exploited by white researchers, and how I felt uncomfortable. My supervisors could not understand why I chose not to write about this experience, but rather omit it and hope it would go unnoticed. Talking about the situation with my white supervision made me feel extremely uncomfortable as well, and then it occurred to me that I felt uncomfortable talking about race. 

 

My research methodology named Heuristic Hermeneutic Phenomenological Inquiry (HHPI), which is a self-interpretive approach that enables participants and me to make meaningful understandings of our lived experiences. Through the process of self-inquiry, I and the participants reflect on our past experiences, but also inquire on a much deeper level into those experiences in a reflexive manner. Reflexivity, as I have come to understand through those lived experiences, is a radical systematic questioning of the self about your lived experiences with others in a social, political, cultural and historical context.  

 

From the beginning of the research process to the very end illuminated and explicated the impact of systemic racism. A process which evoked personal painful lived experiences of racial abuse which was re-traumatising as I uncovered what I had hidden for decades. I found myself experiencing symptoms of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) such as flashbacks, hyper-vigilance, distorted negative thoughts, acute anxiety, fear, anger, low mood, sleep deprivation. According to DSM-5 and the qualifying criteria PTSD, it outlines the following situations.

 

  • direct exposure of the traumatic situation;
  • witnessing the traumatic situation in person;
  • learns that the traumatic situation happened to a close family member or close friend (with the actual or threatened death being either violent or accidental); or experiences first-hand repeated or extreme exposure to aversive details of the traumatic event (not through media, pictures, television or movies unless work-related). 
  • Furthermore, re-experiencing traumatic situations in which covers spontaneous memories of the traumatic event, recurrent dreams related to it, flashbacks or other intense or prolonged psychological distress. Avoidance, also a symptom of PTSD refers to distressing memories, feeling, maladaptive thoughts or external reminders of the situation.

 

PTSD affected my attendance at university as the painful memories of racisms in school made it extremely difficult to engage with other students and lecturers. I would only go to see my supervisors and leave straight afterwards. I did not use the libraries nor attend any social or academic PhD student events. Moreover, l did not attend my graduation once I received my doctorate status.

 

The Effects of Racial Trauma 

 

To illustrate the effects of racial trauma, I have taken a narrative from my PhD research to demonstrate the impact of PTSD.

 

I start to feel afraid the moment I hear disgruntled Black or White people discuss the issue of race. My adrenaline starts pumping, and my heart starts racing, and I feel a slight dizziness in my head. My body and mind alerts the fight, flight or freeze responses however, I cannot fight. My voice feels as though it's been silenced, and I no longer have the words to put up a fight. Yes, I am inferior to the White human race. It’s disturbing to think this, just as much as it is to listen to Black and White people discuss the issue of race. I desperately want it to go away. I still carry the mental scars from decades ago. You Black bastard. You nigger. You gollywog. You monkey. You sambo. Extremely painful words I had no choice but to endure. The image of a black fly drowning in milk at times sums up how I feel powerless and helpless unable to speak up for myself. This feeling inhibits me from ever trying to express myself clearly to a White audience whether in person or writing. I know it affects how I am then judged, so avoidance becomes my best friend as it protects me from painful exposure and other’s reactions. I often ask myself the question, should I go deep enough will I explode? If I express the feeling of anger will I be punished in my viva? So, the fear is replaced with avoidance, but I guess I am getting better purely because I am writing these words. Racial avoidance prevents me from sitting with or conveying the feelings of fear, anger, powerlessness and helplessness until it dissipates. Instead, I become my internal slave master, battling with the thought that I have to now apologise to my White audience should they experience any discomfort or disagree with my words. I am no longer afraid to admit that yes, I am fearful of my White audience. But this feeling of inferiority is controlling my mind, and the feeling of equality remains a fantasy in my mind. 

 

The Implications for Post Traumatic Slavery Disorder

 

Give that racial trauma is a direct result of repetitive systemic racial hatred in which ethnic and racial groups experience higher rates of PTSD as compared to their white counterparts. One explanation for this is due to colonisation and the legacy of slavery. Given this knowledge, when counsellors, psychotherapist and psychologist are conducting psychological assessments of people from BAME backgrounds, Post Traumatic Slavery Disorder (PTSD) should be considered especially if the individuals’ traumatic lived experiences demonstrate repetitive systemic racism. Post Traumatic Slavery Disorder (PTSD) is the enduring psychological injury induced by the legacy of centuries of slavery which then becomes intergenerational given BAME’s repetitive lived experiences of institutional racism and oppression in contemporary society.

 

------- Dr Yvonne Williams---------

 

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